Citizens of Somewhere Else: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James

By Dan McCall | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven The Great Stories

"Hawthorne and His Mosses" records Melville's euphoria about Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories, not his novels. The Scarlet Letter had already been published, but we find no mention of it in "Mosses or anywhere else in Melville's writing. He did write a letter to Hawthorne in April 1851, a sentimental, oddly cute paragraph about The House of the Seven Gables. But it was the short stories that inspired him. Reading them requires a rather special skill, and I should like to look very briefly at two ways not to do it, one from the Left and one from the Right, in so far as our aesthetic ideas have a political dimension. Judith Fetterley asserts that Hawthorne "The Birthmark" is testimony "to the pervasive sexism of our culture. Most readers would describe it as a story of failure rather than as the success story it really is--the demonstration of how to murder your wife and get away with it. The only good woman is a dead one and the motive underlying the desire to perfect is the need to eliminate."

Fetterley seems to be quite oblivious to the story's obvious predication of perverse sexuality. We know from page 1 that it is fatal. It's a Frankenstein story, an attack on experimental science; Aylmer is a "vile empiric" like Rappaccini (about whom Hawthorne would write the following year). We could almost call it "a genre story," so frequently did Hawthorne write a version of it, as did many other, lesser writers of his time.

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